What Makes Writing Successful?

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When you write, think more about communicating than about following rules.

What Makes Writing Successful? You can count on good writing to have three qualities:

  • It says something of consequence.

  • It says something to a specific audience.

  • It says something for a specific purpose.

  • While really excellent writing also has other qualities, these three are the basics.

    Thus it’s evident that good writing can take many shapes. You can find it in PARADE magazine as well as in the NEW YORK TIMES; in CAR and DRIVER as well as in ESQUIRE; on a web site as well as in a set of clear instruction for assembling a bird feeder. Its central quality, whether its purpose is to inform persuade or entertain, is this:
    It communicates the writer’s ideas effectively to the audience for whom it is intended.

    The qualifier for whom it is intended is particularly important. When you write, consider who is going to read your work and ask yourself how skilled your readers are and why they are reading your particular piece. Remember also that what woks with one group of readers may fail miserably with another group. We’ll talk more about audience in subsequent chapters.

    Specific characteristics of writing that works:

    In spite of the ways in which writers work adapt their tone, style and vocabulary to different audiences, it’s still possible to identify certain factual writing. We call such writing Working Writing or Writing to get the job done. It meets at least the following criteria:

  • It says something of consequence.

  • It’s clear.

  • It’s organized.

  • It’s economical.

  • It’s grammatically acceptable.

  • It has no spelling errors.

  • If your writing meets these standards it may not be dazzling or a graceful, but your readers will understand it. That’s worth great deal.

    If you aspire to move beyond this level of competence, you’ll need to stretch beyond the basics and work at bringing two other characteristics into your writing :
    Vigor and An Authentic Voice. You will find more about these qualities later in this chapter.

    For Practice :

    1. Read carefully the following three passages from professional writers. Then either working in a group with two or three others in your class or writing on your own, comment on each of the passages. What qualities of good writing do you find in each of them? What specific phrases of sentence do you find especially effective? How would you characterize each paragraph in just a few words?

    1 - A : The Work the (chain) gangs do is valueless. The rock breaking is pure photo opportunity. The highway crews allegedly clear weeds and debris, but this is impossible to do on any useful scale with five men chained eight feet apart each stumbling when the next one does. The real reason for stretching legions of chained, white suited men for a mile or so along the highway is to let motorists gorge on a visible symbol of punishment and humiliation. Hanging too was once a public entertainment. No one would be surprised if some ambitious politician suggests making it so again. (BRENT STAPLES : THE CHAIN GAND SHOW)

    1 - B : When I as a boy I would not tell a men what I felt, if I believed what I felt was unmanly. We went back to the trench, down into it, and I picked up the shovel I had left there at noon, and shoveled all the loose earth between me and the man in front of me, and then put the shovel beside the trench, lifted the pick, raised it over my shoulder, and swung it down into the dirt. I was dizzy and weak and hot; I worked for forty minutes or so; then above me, I heard my father’s voice, speaking my name. I looked up at him, he was here to take me home, to forgive my failure, and in my great relief I could not know that I would not be able to forgive it. I was going home. But he said: “Lel‘s go buy you a hat". (ANDRE DUBUS : DIGGING)

    1 - C : How do we tell the truth in a small town? Is it possible to write it? Certainly great literature might come out of the lives of ordinary people on the farms and ranches and little towns of the Plains, but are the people who farm the people who work in these towns, writing it? The truth, the whole truth, tends to be complex, its contentment’s and joys wrestled out doubt, pain, change. How to tell the truth in small town, where, if a discouraging word is heard, it is not for public consumption? (KATHLEEN NORRIS : CAN YOU TELL THE TRUTH IN A SMALL TOWN? )

    2. How comparatively readable are the following two examples from students’ papers? What specific comments or suggestions might you make to the authors?

    2 - A : Today in the world there are more than 200 breeds of dogs and these can further be divided into six groups. Dogs perform a variety of services to the community. They have the intelligence and also the ability to bond with humans. It enables them to help us in different tasks. One such group is the Working dogs which do many of these tasks. Dogs are helpful to many individuals in our society and becoming more than just household pet.

    2 - B : In bicycle racing, it takes much more than physical exertion to place well consistently. At the pro level, all racers have excellent fitness. Those who most often succeed go beyond that level. They must know even to exert themselves. They must know when not to. They must know how to cruise to minimize effort. And they must know how to relax during times of less than full effort. The whole game revolves around who has been best able to conserve his energy, using it only in controlled bursts to keep in contention or take advantage of a competitor’s weakness.

    3. Reread the two passages in the preceding exercise. How strong a voice do you think each writer projects? Do you find the voice authentic? Does the writer seem to be talking about something he or she knows and cares about? If so, how is that impression conveyed? If not what goes wrong?

    For Writing :

    Write an informative or persuasive essay on some topic that you find interesting and on which you have already done some reading or which you have already discussed with someone - perhaps an issue you are studying in another class. Such as censorship in art, the high cost of political campaigns, or obesity in children : approximate length should be four to six double spaced pages (1,000 to 1,500 words). Select a publication in which you, were you professional writer, might get such an essay published, and write its name under the title of your essay. Some possibilities could be
    Parade Magazine, Newsweek or Health Today.

    Here are some ideas :

    1.Discuss the issues that are raised in censorship battles of the kind that occur in a school district when group of parents try to have a book banned. For example, groups of parents in recent years have wanted Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale removed from their high school libraries because they felt this book was unsuitable for students in advanced placement courses. (Atwood’s book is a science fiction novel about a strict religious community of the not too distant future in which women have lost their Civil rights. Severe environmental pollution has let to widespread female infertility, and so the government has designated certain young women to be mated with elders of the community in order to ensure the survival of the ruling class.) Other parents contended that the book should be kept, that it was well written and dealt with substantial ethical issues. Remember to focus on the censorship issue and not take sides in the argument.

    2.Drawing on your own high school experience, identify two characteristics of a high school that you think help create a good environment for learning and healthy emotional development. As an alternative, identify two characteristics a high school that you believe create an unhealthy environment that hampers learning and character development. In either case describe the characteristics in some detail and give specific examples. Some possible places to publish. Readers’ Digest or Change (a magazine for educators).

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